The purpose of this study is to use viewers' open-ended, on-line responses to a television commercial to capture their interpretations of visual information. In particular, this study looked at how the visual cueing process works in the development of levels of complex symbolic interpretations. The study identified the significant visual cues operating in the viewer's interpretive processing and linked them to various types of literal, symbolic, and metaphoric meanings. It also identified instances where other unintended meta-codes were elicited by the visual cues leading viewers into aberrant or idiosyncratic interpretations.

Viewers of the "1984" commercial were perceptive and creative in most of their symbolic and metaphoric interpretations. The woman received the most meaning attributions and the largest variety of meanings in the commercial while color cues and light signals received the most significant attention from viewers. The runner was understood and aberrantly decoded in almost as many ways as there were viewers.

Meta-codes were manifested as other commercials, war crimes, Olympic games and sociological treatments. Adherence to the science fiction story line was much more evident than the reception of the competitive message Apple designed for its viewers. Although readers were able to generalize most of the fictional elements to the product or its logo and most of them understood that the story was a metaphor for a new product introduction.


The purpose of this study is to use viewers' open-ended, on-line responses to a television commercial to capture their interpretations of visual information. In particular, this study will look at how the visual cueing process works in the development of the viewer's interpretations in such areas as metaphoric and symbolic meaning.


In classical communication studies a message is encoded by the source, transmitted through a channel and decoded by a receiver. In advertising the message is put into words and pictures by a creative team, approved by a client, distributed through a medium like television or magazines, and--assuming it gets attention--it is decoded by the targeted audience. In order for the audience to make sense of the information, however, the message has to use appropriate signs and symbols to stimulate the individual's perceptual system into action.

A cue is a signal of something or a reminder of something. It brings to mind something from past knowledge or previous experience that provides a framework of meaning that can be used to interpret the sign. The concept of cueing is very important to visual communication because much of past experience is filed in memory as a visual element. In other words, while cues can and do work on the semantic level for certain types of information, perceptual psychologists focus more on the tremendous role of visual imagery in the cueing process based as it is on experiential knowledge.

Advertising, with its highly condensed message formats, uses a shortcut form of information processing. Through association, two thoughts--usually a product and a selling message--are connected in the mind. If this works successfully, when you think about the selling message with its visual cues, you recall the product and vice versa. Clearly this message strategy is heavily dependent on the successful functioning of the cueing process. There simply isn't time in most advertisements for elaborated message development, so the message designers depend upon cues to elicit the associated meanings. In other words, cueing drives the process of association.

This paper will investigate the cueing process used by viewers of advertising in terms of the development of and understanding of two types of complex symbolic information: metaphors and meta-codes. Cueing, particularly visual cueing, is essential for successful decoding of both message forms.

The complex nonverbal commercial "1984," which introduced the Macintosh computer, will be used to analyze symbolic meaning production by viewers from an essentially visual message. Apple Corporation chose the 1984 Super Bowl as an arena for unveiling its new Macintosh computer in a spectacular commercial produced for a single viewing. While only aired once, the 1984 commercial has been pointed to as a unique and distinctive example of advertising creativity. Admittedly 1984 is past and that unique Super Bowl situation can not be recreated, but this particular commercial

is still an ideal tool for analyzing meaning production because of its nonverbal message structure and sophisticated use of symbols and metaphors.

Symbolic Meaning

In order to understand how visuals signal meaning, we need to understand how symbolic meaning is produced. The source of much of the analysis of symbolic meaning is a field of research and theory known as semiotics. In semiotics, a sign is something that stands for something else. Ferdinand de Saussure explains that the sign process involves a signifier--a word, sound, or object--that represents a signified, which is the concept, idea, or thought that you want to communicate. In other words, a drawing of a car and the letters C A R (the signifiers) can both be said to represent, or signify, the shiny, steel vehicle with four wheels (the signified) that sits in the driveway. Note that in this example, both the drawing and the signified are products of visual imagery.

The link between the signified and its signifiers is established through the process of cueing, but how meaning is signalled and the role of cueing in semiotic interpretation is less well understood. One of the early theorists, Charles S. Pierce, categorizes the type of signification as iconic, symbolic, or indexical and these categories are useful in framing a discussion of cueing. An iconic sign, for example, looks like what it represents--a picture of a rose, for example, has visual patterns and details that resemble a real life rose. Iconic signs are literal and representational. An indexical sign, in contrast, is a clue that links or connects things that occur simultaneously in nature. Wilted leaves, for example, may signal that a flower needs watering; smoke signals a fire.

A symbol, however, is more complex in terms of its cueing processes. A symbol is something that represents something else by convention or by association. For example, a dove is a symbol for peace and a balance scale is a symbol for justice. We have learned in the U.S. to agree upon the meaning of both of these symbols by convention.

Symbols, obviously, are socially and culturally determined and their meanings can change between groups and across time. A flower is a symbol of love on Mother's Day or Valentine's Day. During the Sixties, however, the flower came to be a symbol for war protest and at that time--and even now for people who lived through those days--can arouse incredible combative emotional responses. Symbolic meanings, because they are so culturally derived and dependent on learned meanings, are less well anchored in iconographic representation and are most subject to personal and idiosyncratic interpretation.

A cue, the signal that stimulates the production of meaning in a receiver's mind, is particularly important in understanding symbolic meaning. At the symbolic level, the cue is more than just a simple representation because it elicits a complex structure of meaning based on previously encountered networks of associations. For example, the flower symbol of the Sixties would mean very little to someone who wasn't born then, isn't a U.S. citizen, or who knows little or nothing about the antiwar movement of that period.

Metaphoric Meaning

The process of symbolization is broad and guides much of our meaning production both visually and verbally. A more complex form of symbolic communication, however, is derived from metaphoric thinking. For analyzing this type of meaning, we turn to literary analysis. Metaphors point out similarities or commonalities between two things. They evoke meaning by transferring qualities from a referent to a new object through implied comparison, the resemblance being based on analogy.

In verbal language, one thing is likened to another by being spoken of as it if were that other thing; the same process operates visually by presenting an object or event in what the context or form usually associated with something else. Verbally, the comparison can be implied, which is common in metaphors, or stated by using the word like as in a simile, which is a specific type of metaphor. However, there is no visual equivalent to the word like, therefore most visual communication that uses alanlogical thinking is referred to as metaphoric.

There is always some point of obvious comparison--however abstract--on which the similarities necessary in metaphoric thinking can be built. For example, in the simile, "the highway interchange looks like spaghetti," there is a physical similarity between the ribbons of concrete and strands of pasta and this structural comparison is enhanced by the interwoven patterns the two create in space.

Kaplan says a metaphor is a combination of two ideas presented in relationship to one another such that one idea is used to organize or conceptualize the other. He explains that the meaning of the metaphor results from this relationship between the two ideas. He further explains that there are two additional conditions required for metaphorical meaning: 1. some features of the two ideas are shared between them and 2. the attempt to map one idea onto the other must violate linguistic norms or beliefs to the extent that a measure of tension is created. So there is both a condition of similarity (shared features) and a sense of incongruity (tension) which determines the effectiveness and appeal of the metaphor.

A metaphorical expression in a sense is a "category mistake" because it challenges the reader to make sense of something that doesn't quite fit. At the same time metaphors are generative because they expand the conventional way of seeing things and this, of course, can produce a variety of idiosyncratic meanings.

Metaphoric thinking operates by linking concepts at different levels of abstraction, thus making generalization possible. Visual metaphors, for example, typically use a concrete form--such as buildings, flags, statues, people, and possessions--to represent abstract ideas such as freedom, change, intellect, hope, endurance, equality, or quality. As Linda Scott has pointed out, analysis of advertising usually focuses on the referential uses of visuals which highlight and showcase the product while ignoring the deeper levels of meaning produced by such visuals at the metaphoric level and the generalization processes on which meaning is constructed.

In order to do such an analysis, it is necessary to deconstruct the levels of abstraction and identify the patterns of generalization. What this suggests is that one might hypothesize levels of abstraction--a hierarchy of meaning production-- with iconic or literal meanings at the lowest or simplest level followed by more complex symbolic forms such as those that elicit metaphoric meanings. Metaphoric meaning is deemed more complex because the substitution and generalization process of metaphors makes more demands on the receiver than the referential process of iconographic meaning. Metaphors also demand that the receiver puzzle through the tensions and ambiguities implicit in the metaphoric form.

Metaphoric analysis is important because symbolic imagery is such an important meaning carrier in advertising, and particularly in television advertising. As Pollay and Mainprize have found, metaphor is the most convenient form for transferring abstract qualities like value and durability to products. Leiss, et. al. contend that "metaphor is the very heart of the basic communication form used in modern advertising." Given that the entire 1984 commercial functions as an extended metaphor, a study of this commercial's patterns of visual communication must attempt to analyze how well the abstract qualities that the advertiser wished to associate with the computer are indeed understood by the viewers.


In semiotic theory, what holds the patterns of meaning together is a code, an agreed upon set of rules that guide the meaning making. Berger explains that "people carry codes around in their heads, highly complex patterns of associations"that enable them to interpret symbolic and metaphoric communication correctly.

When the interpretation of a code like advertising, for example, is based on some other subsystem of codes, then a message is said to operate with a meta-code. Some of the common meta-code systems employed in advertising, include fashion, high society, street smarts, science fiction or futurism, medicine and health, and high technology. As Banks and Coulter explained in a paper on the images of women used in fashion catalogs--- gender, with all of its historical, sexual, and social meanings--functions as a meta-meaning system that influences how fashion advertising is understood. This meta-code is expressed functionally in aesthetic cues such as lighting, color, setting, and composition and nonverbal cues such as facial expressions and body stance, and social cues indicating roles and active/passive or dominant/submissive relationships.

The concept of meta-code, which is similar in literature to the concept of genre, is important in understanding how people interpret the "1984" commercial which incorporates the meaning systems of science fiction, politics, and advertising with their distinctive associations and cueing processes. Viewers, in other words, have expectations about the commercial's meaning based on their familiarity with the form of advertising, their understanding of repressive political systems, and their familiarity with the forms of science fiction.

Research Questions

-How well do the viewers of the "1984" commercial perceive the symbolic and metaphoric meanings?

-What are the visual cues that serve as stimulus to the symbolic and metaphoric meanings?

-Do various types of visual cues elicit different levels of meaning complexity?

-Are there meta-codes being used by the viewers other than the 1984 story and how are they being used to construct meaning?


The idea behind this study is to investigate the viewers' responses to a set of open-ended questions about the symbolization and visual imagery in the commercial. The analysis will unpack the symbols and metaphors used by the viewers and analyze them in terms of the cueing process that gave rise to the meanings.

The viewers included 200 undergraduate students in introductory mass communication courses in the Spring semester of 1991 at two state universities located in the western U.S. While these students can not be seen as reflecting the composition of the Super Bowl audience that watched the initial showing of the commercial in 1984, they are similar to Apple's targeted audience in one critical aspect: they are likely to be interested in a personal computer and most of them probably have not purchased a computer yet. This state of interest is similar to the type of audience Apple hoped to reach in 1984 with its Super Bowl commercial. It is also expected that few of these students have seen or would remember seeing this commercial when it ran some seven years earlier. Most would have been preteens at that time and personal computers were not as widely available in schools or homes. Less than five percent indicated at the time of the showing that they had seen the commercial.

After a preliminary introduction designed to set the commercial in the context in which it was first seen, students were asked to watch the commercial and then describe what the commercial meant. The response instrument contained a set of open-ended questions which sought to probe the types of meanings the viewers derived from the commercial. The instrument asked the students to explain the point or message intended by the makers of the commercial, cite the visuals that made an impression on them, and explain the symbolism they saw in the imagery.

A code sheet was developed based on a semiotic analysis of the primary elements of meaning intended by the creators--taken from interviews with Lee Clow, the agency creative director, and Ridley Scott, the director--as well as the meanings interpreted in two expert readings by Arthur Asa Berger and Linda Scott. This codesheet was used to deconstruct and categorize the meanings and meaning clusters found in the viewer responses and permits identification of intended as well as idiosyncratic meanings.

This approach is basically qualitative although it uses content analysis methodology to bring structure to the compilation of the 200 responses. This is similar to the approach reported by Leiss, Line and Jhally which they described as a semiological/content analysis combining a sensitivity to layers and patterns of meaning with the more rigorous and systematic strategies of quantitative content analysis.


The objective of this analysis is to unpack the viewer's perceptions of the various message elements in terms of their levels of complexity--literal, symbolic, metaphoric-- and then to identify the visual cues that elicited the various types of meanings. There are a number of message elements that could be deconstructed---the inmates, their marching feet, the environment through which they marched, the woman runner, the hammer she carried, the police chasing her, the clothing the woman and inmates wore, the use of color, the Big Brother figure, Big Brother's ideological rhetoric, the telescreens, the meeting situation and environment, the explosion, and the product logo---however, this analysis will only look at those elements which seem to be the richest in symbolic and metaphoric meaning. Specifically, we will consider the woman runner, the inmates, the Big Brother figure, the explosion, and the environment.

For each of the five elements, the discussion will center around the cues, i.e. references made to that element, and the method of analysis students used to decode the meaning of that element. The categories of analysis and their operational definitions are as follows:

Category Instances where students see the element as:

Literal (Iconic) a representation of the actual entity but read with a comment or description about what the element is doing, can do will do, or may do; can be action oriented.

Symbolic symbols which draw upon learned information from their subconscious to decode the message; one thing stands for something else by convention.

Metaphoric analogous to or representative of an abstract idea or emotion; points out similarities and commonalities between two things (includes similes).

The Woman Runner

The analysis will begin with the woman runner since she seemed to be the message element with the highest level of recall and the most variety of meanings. Recalled by viewers as woman, lady, female, girl, figure and person, the woman runner was the most widely mentioned and most diversely referenced element of the commercial.

Literal interpretations included: she will free everyone, she breaks the monotony, she is the only woman, and she is the opposite of men. Just over half of the respondents' references were in the forms of symbols such as: symbolizing freedom, mother figure giving birth to new technology, brave, innovative, hope for the future, individualizing of America, sex, and feminism. Approximately 40% of the students used metaphors such as: salvation, hope, savior, rebel, liberator, and Macintosh (the idea of Mac saving computer users from the competition).

Seven aspects of the woman figure were noted by viewers and these various elements functioned as visual cues signalling different interpretive structures. For example, the age cue, expressed literally as young and girl, elicited symbolic interpretations such as time to change the technology of today, the feminine revolution, and was also used as a metaphor for freedom.

When the running cue (also noted as jogging) was used as the descriptor, metaphoric meanings included: Apple and/or Macintosh, freedom, destroyer, breaking the mold/ rules, new technology, lady with the torch, the Statue of Liberty, and U.S. patriotism. Running was also viewed as symbolic of vigor, health, change, the olympics, and revolution. Literal interpretations of running were: she wants to get out of the past and running to get ahead.

Viewers also used the running with hammer cue in conjunction with the woman. Literal references were to such concepts as weapon and axe. Most metaphoric references contained freedom metaphors, metaphors for change, breaking the rules, Macintosh, and a bolt of lightening. Viewers thought the runner with hammer symbolized rebellion or a rebellious heroine, the last of the free thinkers, and a leader of change.

Viewers included additional descriptive cues to reference the woman runner including color, clothing, fitness, and hair cues. When the colors of red, white, and /or blue were used in conjunction with her clothing, viewers mentioned symbols of America, freedom, change and liberation. Although patriotic colors were not actually present, the red shorts and white shirt signaled nationalism to some viewers. Viewers thought 'bright' colors symbolized creativity, new ideas, contrast to a dull world, ingenuity, the end of conformity, and originality; bright colors were often metaphors for Apple and Macintosh.

Students who remembered the women in 'shorts' or 'tank top' gave literal descriptions like: a runner taking the lead and running to save the day. Metaphoric references to clothes signified a breakthrough and feminism, i.e. a woman saving the men. The clothes also on a more literal level reflected the dress of the modern woman of the 80s. 'Athletic' (physical, fit, trim, strong, well-toned) references used in conjunction with the woman were predominantly metaphors for: Apple, change, independence, and leadership; and symbols of power and speed. The descriptor 'blonde' was symbolic of freedom, individuality, breaking the mold and "a ray of hope for the brain dead."

Some students mentioned normative cues, acknowledging "being different" as a symbol for progress or change. On a literal level her difference from the others was referred to as uniqueness. A few students saw meanings either relating to or reflecting sexism or sexist cues . Sexist comments were noted in the discussion of bouncing breasts and skimpy clothes as being symbolic of Hooters waitresses or more literally as a production technique used to get the attention of males.

Several forms of idiosyncratic decoding (where the viewer's interpretation differs markedly from the commercial's intention) occur in references to sexism, described above, and when viewers cued the woman as a 'god' or godlike or mythical, a figure who symbolized a white knight or Thor. Students cuing on the woman also made contemporary references, seeing her as a symbol of the Yuppie generation, NOW generation, and the age of fitness. The Olympics was clearly a meta-code operating at various times in their interpretation of this figure as an American Olympic athlete. Along that line, as was probably noted in the previous discussions, many of the references indicated a meta-code of patriotism.

Other instances where students incorrectly decoded the clothing cue occurred when the runner was mistaken as an advertiser for Nike; apparently her shirt and shoes signaled recollections of a commercial that featured a similar text. Here, meta-codes, where viewer meanings were based on codes from other genre, resulted in incorrect references to commercials, sporting events, and sociological phenomena.


On a more literal level these characters were referred to by viewers as: soldiers, people, clones, men, zombies and droids. They were seen as all the same and described as people controlled by the computer, inexpressive, and commoners. Viewers saw them as metaphors for conformity in society, the dehumanization of people, and monotony; they were symbolic of the human race, the business world before computers, and the sameness of today's boring world.

Six visual cues stood out in the viewers notations and they are: sameness, shaved heads, clothing, expression, marching, and watching. Sameness was the most prominent cue, acting as metaphors for conformity, brainwashing, mechanization and other competitive computers. Dull, drab, dead, washed out were literal interpretations of viewers.

Shaved heads (also described with bald as the adjective) enhanced the conformity metaphor; they thought bald heads symbolized a loss of individuality and submission to control. Boring and monotonous were the most frequent literal interpretations made by viewers. Clothing, described most often as grey, baggy, or colorless and occasionally as uniforms, were symbolic of lost identity, and a lack of individuality. Viewers saw clothing as metaphors for slavery, society and computer users. Literally, the clothing was boring and monotonous.

Expressions were noted at two points in the narrative: during the commercial's buildup to the explosion and after the explosion occurred. Pre-explosion expressions were described as grey, stone-faced, blank and mesmerized. Metaphorically the expression meant vegetables, oppressed, boredom and computers. These expressions were also incorrectly used as literal interpretations of post-explosion shock and surprise. Only a few students correctly interpreted the reactive expression as symbolic of the powerlessness of the inmates, indicating perhaps that the expression cue did not communicate the producer's intended meaning.

The marching cue was understood literally and expressed in the term 'single file' by most viewers. The conformity metaphor prevailed here; others saw marching as a metaphor for old computers and the old world, an interesting reversal of the time concept for a futuristic commercial setting. Marching elicited military symbolism from some viewers; others had literal understanding that marchers were headed for the same place at the same time. Viewers thought the watching cue was symbolic of technology's trance, and being programmed and catatonic.

The watching behavior also cued a negative reference to media control and the dominantion of television in contemporary life, a continuing reference that also showed up in references to the screen and Big Brother's screen image. These references suggest a functioning meta-code focused on the negative imagery of television.

Evidence of aberrant decodings through reference to other meta-codes was also present. Historical references were the predominant meta-codes read from cues about the inmates. Some viewers saw them as metaphors for the death camps and concentration camps; other saw the marchers as goosesteppers who were symbolic of Nazi military imagery. Another aberrant decoding placed inmates in the future as a "huge mass that supports the good for all in the Ayn Rand sense."

Big Brother

The Big Brother cue was described literally as a leader, old man, and talking head by viewers. Others saw him as a metaphor for a dictator, controller, ruler, and IBM. To some he was symbolic of the giant, unfriendly computer company, and of conservatism--i.e. the idea that computers should remain as they are. When this cue was associated with the screen cue (TV, monitor), readers found these additional metaphors: government, god, and a higher order; and these additional symbolic meanings: "we will respond to a mere TV screen," old versus new, and leader misguidance. The talking cue (barking orders, sermonizing) elicited predominantly dictator metaphors. A historical meta-code, the hate meeting, as well as Hitler imagery, was also applied to these message elements.

The Explosion The event of a hammer being thrown at a screen which then exploded produced some interesting meanings that were dependent upon how the viewer read the activity. For instance, when the sledgehammer cue was the referent, viewers described metaphors for change and breaking away. The also felt it symbolized the end of communism and conformity. The throwing cue symbolized the Macintosh "blowing away" the competition and the introduction of individualism. And when the breaking/smashing cues were cited, viewers saw symbols of a new way of doing things, freeing captives, Mac's victory; the act signified that Mac broke the mold. The flash of light cue and the explosion cue were visual signals that generated change metaphors and signified good triumphant over evil. To some the flash of light symbolized a religious experience.

The Environment

Elements of the environment cued a variety of readings from viewers. Some saw the tunnel cue as a metaphor for tunnel vision; others described dark hallways, grey settings, and the steel/concrete construction as metaphors for oppression, dullness, and technology of the future. One described the environment as a glass bridge symbolic of a fish-bowl existence and another thought the grated floor was symbolic of unsafe surroundings.


Viewers of the "1984" commercial were perceptive and creative in most of their symbolic and metaphoric interpretations. The woman received the most meaning attributions in the commercial; color cues and light signals received the most significant attention from viewers. As an oppositional element (female vs male, color vs black and white, free vs controlled), the female elicited the largest variety of meanings. The runner was understood and aberrantly decoded in almost as many ways as there were viewers.

Meta-codes were manifested as commercials, war crimes, Olympic games and sociological treatments. Adherence to the science fiction story line was much more evident than the reception of the competitive message Apple designed for its viewers. Although readers made connections to IBM and unfriendly technology from visual cues less frequently than they made connections to the 1984 story, they were able to generalize most of the fictional elements to the product or its logo and most of them understood that the story was a metaphor for a new product introduction.


As other researchers who have studied the problem of imagery have noted, verbal translations of mental imagery are always problematic. This is a problem to the degree that the viewers have semantic limitations on their ability to conceptualize their interpretations. While our study didn't address this question, it is clear that some students are more responsive than others. It is expected that this range of verbal responsiveness, however, is well distributed given the size of the sample.

The study makes no claim to capturing the entirety of the viewer's meanings; their interpretations were written rather than verbal, and their ideas were recalled out of the context of the original setting. However, the study does contribute to our understanding of how visual cues and signals develop meaning for viewers and can lead them occasionally into aberrant or idiosyncratic interpretations. With the increasing importance of visual communication, further studies into cuing as a technique for meaning development are needed to decrease aberrant decoding and increase accurate message delivery. The findings of this study are a beginning in that area, and thus have value for producers of television commercials and students of visual imagery.



The purpose of this study is to use viewers' open-ended, on-line responses to a television commercial to capture their interpretations of visual information. In particular, this study looked at how the visual cueing process works in the development of levels of complex symbolic interpretations. The study identified the significant visual cues operating in the viewer's interpretive processing and linked them to various types of literal, symbolic, and metaphoric meanings. It also identified instances where other unintended meta-codes were elicited by the visual cues leading viewers into aberrant or idiosyncratic interpretations.

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